The pandemic has added more energy and arguments on both sides of the question of whether knowledge worker productivity can be sustained when offices are closed (or optional). The best defense of forcing (or nudging) employees into serendipitous face-to-face interactions I have seen is in the New York Times article “When Chance Encounters at the Water Cooler Are Most Useful”. This is currently the minority opinion as most articles extol the virtues of hybrid work. While evidence that F2F has no provable value proliferated early in the pandemic, this article is a nice summary of the evidence and anecdotes that it does have value. It reiterates that the core catalyst of effectiveness is not collaboration, engagement, or innovation: it is relationships.
The data shows that in-office work is helpful at one part of the creative process: forming initial relationships, particularly with people outside your normal sphere.
When good relationships exist, strong ties between remote workers can be leveraged to avoid misunderstandings and accelerate agreement. Weak ties can become stronger as serendipitous meetings generate ideas or as needed for a project.
In a November 12, 2021 article in the New York Times (“What Bosses Really Think About the Future of the Office”) Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google, said:
“We are working on some borrowed time, in terms of working on memories of the relationships you have and the connections you have,” Mr. Pichai said. “It’s taking a toll.”
Studies have shown that having a face to face relationship strengthens bonds and increases ability to work together and understand cues like humor. And, more importantly, that once this understanding is established it can last for a long time when the workers go virtual. But developing that relationship virtually from the start is difficult.
New employees, in particular, benefit from F2F time to absorb the organizational culture. It is not as effective to learn culture through Powerpoint slides or mission statements as it is to develop relationships with senior-level co-workers to observe how they behave and make decisions when HR is not around.
Of course, all these articles will look dated in a few years as common wisdom changes again. The pandemic didn’t so much tilt the average Western, knowledge worker’s job towards remote work as it did start a pendulum in motion. The center point of this pendulum may have shifted, but it will take a while for swings from one extreme to the other to settle into a new equilibrium.
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